THE LESSONS OF ST. FRANCIS OF ASSISI AS IT RELATES TO CRISES AND RENEWAL WITHIN THE CHURCHOn 27 January 2010 Pope Benedict XVI gave his address to the general audience on the topic of St. Francis of Assisi, whom the Holy Father describes as “an authentic giant of holiness.” Pope Benedict speaks about the life and vocation of St. Francis of Assisi and the crisis of the Church in Francis’ own times, as well as his approach to helping heal that crisis.
I cannot help but hear in these prophetic words from the Pope an echo of what is contained in our Rule, my Letters, and conversations between Oblates and those interested in so-called “new monasticism”. May we dare see this as a small confirmation that our community and ministry are not only inspired by the Word of God and Tradition but also truly living and breathing in unison with Holy Mother Church and the Holy Father.
Thus we can see in this brief overview of St. Francis and the renewal of the Church a sort of map or blueprint for MONKROCK and the Oblates of the Last Martyrdom: where we are and where we are going and most importantly how we are to fulfill our mission to “rebuild of the Church in ruins” and to be faithful “Heralds of the Great King” in the world.
1. THE PROVIDENTIAL ROLE
Pope Benedict XVI begins his address by mentioning the providential role that St. Francis of Assisi and his followers had in the renewal of the Church of their time. It is crucial that we recognize the time and circumstances in which we now live, so that we can be properly used by God to meet the specific needs of our day within the Church and in the world.
OF ST. FRANCIS OF ASSISI
Though the message and ministry of MONKROCK would be useful at any time and in any place – since a Gospel-inspired existence patterned after the life of monks is always relevant and efficacious – it is not by accident we have been called at this moment in history; a milieu that is not without precedent in its problems and its solutions, yet in need of a fresh application of old and proven ways.
The primary problem of our day is that man has rejected God formally or practically, and that he has placed the material over the spiritual, the body over the soul, the temporal over the eternal even to the extent of denying the supernatural, the metaphysical and the divine life that man was created for.
Therefore MONKROCK and its Tradition-based “new monasticism” is the most potent remedy to eradicate the disease of naturalism, utilitarianism and liberalism because it keeps heaven and earth, the Church and civil society, God and man in their proper order.
However, the salvation of one’s soul is never a private affair or one that does not intersect with the salvation of others, as the love of God is never perfected without the love of one’s neighbor and the triumph of mercy over judgment.
It would be shortsighted to see MONKROCK only in relationship to one’s own personal aspirations, one’s sense of belonging or one’s spiritual progress. In fact, MONKROCK is only a means by which one can, through a greater intentionality and accountability, more easily live out what has already been asked of us in the commandments of God and the precepts of the Church.
It could be said that MONKROCK exists primarily for the spiritually small and the weak, which is exactly how we have defined ourselves and described our “little way.” For we know that the kingdom of God belongs to such as these (Cf. Lk. 18:15-17; Mt. 19:14), and when we are weak, then we are made strong. (Cf. 2 Cor. 12:9-10)
For MONKROCK to grow beyond mere numbers, we must first of all see ourselves united to one another as an actual and true community (an association of the faithful), and secondly, as an arm (and army) of the Mystical Body of Christ (the Church Militant) that reaches out into the world to establish the kingdom of heaven wherever we are.
The contemplative life – if genuine and God-breathed – naturally leads one to action, for one cannot be enraptured by God and not want to share the fruits of such a love with others. The hidden or interior life of divine union with God is not only the “soul” (or life) of our active apostolate, but an apostolate unto itself; in fact the higher or greater apostolate.
Nevertheless, many if not most Christians are called to the active apostolate – much of which is contained in the duties of our station in life – and this is the very exercise and proof that our spiritual life is not self-serving but redemptive, as modeled by the life and ministry of Jesus, the Apostles and our patrons St. Francis of Assisi and St. Seraphim of Sarov. “Sanctify yourself and you will sanctify society.” (St. Francis of Assisi) "Acquire a peaceful spirit, and around you thousands will be saved.” (St. Seraphim of Sarov)
Pope Benedict XVI highlights the fact that “at the center of this Church in ruins is the Crucified.” Ultimately, it is Christ who is being attacked and wounded by the enemies outside and within the Church. “Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou ME?” (Acts 9:4; 22:7; 26:14)
Christians who are worthy of the name will likewise be persecuted and crucified with our Lord on his Cross – “If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you” (Jn. 15:20) – which is now being completed in his Mystical Body, the Church (Cf. Col. 1:24; cf. Rom. 8:17, 2 Cor. 1:5, 2 Tim. 1:8) and perpetuated on his Eucharistic Altar during the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass (the Divine Liturgy).
Our very name, Oblates of the Last Martyrdom, testifies to the fact that the crucified Lord and his saving Passion is the very source, center and summit of our community and ministry, and the interior and exterior life of each member. For we have resolved to know nothing except Jesus Christ and him crucified. (Cf. 1 Cor. 2:2; Gal. 6:14)
Lastly, the Holy Father points out that it is Christ who speaks, who calls Francis, and who calls him to the renewal of the Church. Francis does not dream up the idea or shrewdly insert himself into the affairs of the Church for some personal agenda. “For it is not the man who commends himself that is accepted, but the man whom the Lord commends.” (2 Cor. 10:18)
The very nature of a calling (a vocation) is that it is dependent upon a first cause. One’s identity and mission does not come from one’s own initiative and ambition or even from the duty to provide for one’s material needs, but from God alone and for the purposes associated with his divine plan of redemption. “Seek first the kingdom of God, and his justice, and all these things shall be added unto you.” (Mt. 6:33; cf. Lk. 12:31)
It goes without saying that God is not asking from us something we can achieve by our own talents, ingenuity or stature, but something we can surely accomplish through our cooperation with grace, divine truth and merciful love. It is the Little Poor Man of Assisi who, by divine inspiration and through divine providence, has been given to us as our patron and guide. And our current Holy Father sees in Francis and the first generation of his followers an example of what is needed today to renew the Church and to save the world.
It is my conviction we are called to be the “Francis” (or “Franciscans”) of our generation and for the generations to come. This apostolic mandate should overshadow all our inadequacies, distractions and fears, and elevate our prayers and works, our seemingly insignificant sacrifices and sufferings, beyond our temporal “loves” and the duties of our station in life, to be the oblations – the “living sacrifices” (Rom. 12:1) – that bring about this renewal of the Church, for the glory of God and the salvation to men.
2. “GO, FRANCIS, AND REPAIR MY CHURCH IN RUINS.”Pope Benedict XVI retells the famous story of Francis in the rundown church of San Damiano, where the crucifix came to life and commissioned him: “Go, Francis, and repair my Church in ruins.”
Today many of our Catholic churches have been neglected and even abandoned for decades, and which are now in need of millions of dollars of repair if they are to survive. These are typically the most beautiful and traditional churches in our dioceses, and thus they are the ones usually given to priests and communities who celebrate the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite or the Ordinary Form in a sacred manner. However, more often than not, these churches are sold to non-Catholics, non-Christians, or even worse, demolished, with the remnants being auctioned off to local stores, restaurants and bars, or even burned or thrown in the church dumpster.
The majority of our churches that remain active were intentionally deformed after the Second Vatican Council through destructive renovations that turned magnificent historical churches – ones that preached the Faith without words through beautiful architecture and art, sacred music and liturgy – into bizarre ugly modernist contraptions with an interior designed for a style of worship and expression of faith totally foreign to orthodoxy – the one true faith and worship of God the Holy Trinity.
Pope Benedict XVI speaks of the “manual labor” that was part of our Lord’s call to Francis, which involved begging for the necessary resources and finances to complete the difficult and expensive task. We will likewise be asked to sacrificially offer a portion of our time, our gifts and our resources if we are to restore our debilitated churches. “Go up to the hills and bring wood and build the house of God, that I may take pleasure in it and that I may appear in my glory!” (Hg. 1:8)
However, the Holy Father emphasizes more the “profound symbolism” contained in this defining moment for Francis and the Church. Pope Benedict XVI states the call “to repair concretely the little church of San Damiano [is a] symbol of the more profound call to renew the Church of Christ itself” with the “living stones” (1 Pt. 2:15) of God’s house.
“The ruinous state of this building is a symbol of the tragic and disturbing situation of the Church itself at that time, with a superficial faith that does not form and transform life, with a clergy lacking in zeal, with the cooling off of love; an interior destruction of the Church that also implied a decomposition of unity, with the birth of heretical movements.” Does this not well describe the unfortunate state of the Church today?
We are experiencing a crisis of faith, of the priesthood, of charity (i.e., a false love or the lack thereof) – a crisis that has produced a multitude of heresies and schisms, and even provoked apostates to leave the “Ark of Salvation” for false religions or no religion at all.
Catholic churches, schools, seminaries and religious houses openly teach error and encourage immorality, abusing their authority to recreate Christ and his Church in their own image and likeness. The Divine Liturgy (the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass), which is the highest expression of the Faith, has been corrupted most all, as Pope Benedict XVI said, “I am convinced that the crisis in the Church which we are experiencing today is, to a large extent, due to the disintegration of the liturgy.” (Milestones, p. 148)
Tragically, year after year, we hear of the countless sins and scandals of priests and bishops that are not only bankrupting the Church financially, but also spiritually. The majority of Catholics are apathetic about their faith. Statistics show that most Catholics do not attend Mass while the majority of those who do attend Mass openly dissent from the Church’s Faith and Morals.
Among Catholics who seek to take their faith seriously (so-called “Conservatives” and “Traditionalists”), there is division, hostility and judgment from one theological or liturgical camp to the other. Does this not sound like what Sr. Lucia (the seer at Fatima) described as a “diabolical disorientation”?
This crisis has been described by Pope Paul VI as “the smoke of Satan” and “auto-demolition” and by Bl. Pope John Paul II as a “silent apostasy,” a “practical agnosticism,” and “the final confrontation between the Church and the anti-Church, between the Gospel and the anti-Gospel, between Christ and the anti-Christ” – what Our Lady at Fatima (1917) called “the Devil’s decisive and final battle.”
“We must admit realistically and with feelings of deep pain, that Christians today in large measure feel lost, confused, perplexed and even disappointed; ideas opposed to the truth which has been revealed and always taught are being scattered abroad in abundance; heresies, in the full and proper sense of the word, have been spread in the area of dogma and morals, creating doubts, confusions and rebellion; the liturgy has been tampered with; immersed in an intellectual and moral relativism and therefore in permissiveness, Christians are tempted by atheism, agnosticism, vaguely moral enlightenment and by a sociological Christianity devoid of defined dogmas or an objective morality.” – Bl. Pope John Paul II (L'Osservatore Romano, 7 February 1981)
Pope Benedict XVI summarizes the crisis and the events surrounding it: “Certainly the results of Vatican II seem cruelly opposed to the expectations of everyone, beginning with those of Pope John XXIII and then of Pope Paul VI. Expected was a new Catholic unity and instead we have been exposed to dissension which, to use the words of Pope Paul VI, seems to have gone from self-criticism to self-destruction. Expected was a new enthusiasm, and many wound up discouraged and bored. Expected was a great step forward, instead we find ourselves faced with a progressive process of decadence which has developed for the most part under the sign of a calling back to the Council, and has therefore contributed to discrediting it for many. The net result therefore seems negative. I am repeating here what I said ten years after the conclusion of the work: it is incontrovertible that this period has definitely been unfavorable for the Catholic Church.”
“There are many accounts of it which give the impression that, from Vatican II onward, everything has been changed, and that what preceded it has no value or, at best, has value only in the light of Vatican II. The Second Vatican Council has not been treated as a part of the entire living Tradition of the Church, but as an end of Tradition, a new start from zero.”
“The truth is that this particular Council defined no dogma at all, and deliberately chose to remain on a modest level, as a merely pastoral council; and yet many treat it as though it had made itself into a sort of superdogma which takes away the importance of all the rest. This idea is made stronger by things that are now happening. That which previously was considered most holy – the form in which the liturgy was handed down – suddenly appears as the most forbidden of all things, the one thing that can safely be prohibited.”
“All this leads a great number of people to ask themselves if the Church of today is really the same as that of yesterday, or if they have changed it for something else without telling people. The one way in which Vatican II can be made plausible is to present it as it is: one part of the unbroken, the unique Tradition of the Church and of her faith. In the spiritual movements of the post-conciliar era, there is not the slightest doubt that frequently there has been an obliviousness, or even a suppression, of the issue of truth; here perhaps we confront the crucial problem for theology and for pastoral work today”: “the hermeneutic of continuity and reform” vs. “the hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture.” (Milestones, p. 146-149; Address to the Roman Curia, 22 December 2005)
Despite these chilling words from the Popes, there are those who still deny there is a crisis in the Church. Among them, most likely, are those who have caused it or who are perpetuating it. And those who have the courage to speak out regarding this crisis, with its cause and effects, are labeled “rebels,” disobedient,” “doomsayers,” or even worse “heretics” and “schismatics”.
So what are to do? We, like St. Francis, are called to renew the Church, but how? We are called to renew the Church in the same manner as Francis once did: with what Pope Benedict described as Francis’ “radical faith and his enthusiastic love for Christ.”
What was spoken by Bl. Pope John Paul II regarding the “New Evangelization” could be said of the so-called “New Monasticism” – this “Franciscan” rebuilding of the Church: “It is not therefore a matter of inventing a new program. The program already exists: it is the plan found in the Gospel and in the living Tradition, it is the same as ever. Ultimately, it has its center in Christ himself, who is to be known, loved and imitated, so that in him we may live the life of the Trinity, and with him transform history until its fulfillment in the heavenly Jerusalem.” (Novo Millennio Ineunte, 29, 6 January 2001)
A common response I get after describing MONKROCK and the greater vision it embodies is, “There’s nothing unique or extraordinary about that; that just sounds like Christianity – what it means to be a Christian!” I happily respond, “Yes!”
3. IT IS NOT THE POPE BUT FRANCIS WHO IS TO RENEW THE CHURCHPope Benedict XVI then recalls a similar event to that at San Damiano: the dream of Pope Innocent III. “He saw in a dream that the Basilica of St. John Lateran, the Mother Church of all churches, was collapsing and a small and insignificant religious supported the church with his shoulders so that it would not collapse.”
“It is interesting to note, on one hand, that it is not the Pope who helps so that the church will not collapse, but a small and insignificant religious, whom the Pope recognizes in Francis who visited him. Innocent III was a powerful Pope, of great theological learning, as well as of great political power, yet it was not for him to renew the Church, but for the small and insignificant religious: It is St. Francis, called by God.”
It is an unfortunate reality that many Catholics – even cardinals, bishops, priests and consecrated religious – do not obey the Pope or even acknowledge his authority, not to mention the great numbers of non-Catholic Christians who deny the primacy (not necessarily supremacy) of the Bishop of Rome or even a clerical hierarchal Church. However, among those who faithfully and lovingly submit to the Pope and the bishops of the Church, we can (in a certain sense) look to the Holy Father and the hierarchy with false or unrealistic expectations.
With the accessibility to the daily activities and words of the Pope (or at least what the secular and Catholic media feeds us), there is a tendency to be preoccupied with or to read too much into what the Pope (and Rome) says and does. We are elated and affirmed when his words and actions support our viewpoint and cause, but we are immediately deflated and confused by what seems to conflict with our expectations, or even more tragically, that which seems to conflict with the words and actions of previous popes or the perennial teaching of the Church.
Though it is not wrong to judge the words and actions of the pope – in fact (a surprise to some) it is part of our duty as Catholics – but we are never to judge the pope himself. Regardless, if there ever is to be a definitive judgment regarding a pope, it must come from a future pope. All of this to say, such activity confuses minds, wounds hearts and misses the point.
Though the Pope is the Vicar of Jesus Christ, it is Jesus Christ who is the head of the Church, and it is we who are called to be the body of Christ, or what St. Teresa of Avila described as “the eyes,” “the hands,” and “the feet” of God. “Christ has no body now on earth but yours, no hands but yours, no feet but yours. Yours are the eyes through which to look out Christ's compassion to the world. Yours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good. Yours are the hands with which he is to bless men now.”
It is as if our Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI is saying to us that he is not going to rebuild the Church in ruins. He is not going to end the crisis. Not only is he not; he can’t. Only God himself can defeat Satan and his minions. Only the Holy Spirit can resuscitate, heal and empower the Mystical Body of Christ. “It is for some to plant, others to water, but it is God who causes the growth.” (1 Cor. 3:6-7)
However, God is asking us to do much of the work. What is most striking in the Pope’s analogy is that he clearly establishing the limits of his own influence (without diminishing his authority) while expanding (with his blessing) the objectives and duties of those who will follow Francis in renewing the ruined Church of our day.
4. FRANCIS DOES NOT RENEW THE CHURCH WITHOUT OR AGAINST THE POPE, BUT ONLY IN COMMUNION WITH HIM“On the other hand, however,” Pope Benedict XVI states, “it is important to note that St. Francis does not renew the Church without or against the Pope, but only in communion with him…hence, he always acted in full communion with the ecclesiastical authority.”
As has already been stated in the description of the current crisis, there are many Catholics among the Hierarchy and the Faithful who are not in full communion with the Church, whether through heresy, apostasy or schism, though without the fanfare of a public declaration or a formal condemnation from the Holy See.
Likewise, there are those who, in their attempt to flee the crisis and its effect upon their faith and the souls entrusted to their care, live out their faith on the fringes of the Church through home schooling and churches without diocesan support or even canonical regularity.
Nevertheless, the purpose of my letter is not to address those who have caused or who perpetuate the crisis or those who do what they believe they have to do to obey God rather than man, and to remain Catholic in a time of disorder and confusion. My purpose here is to simply state without ambiguity that one cannot at the same time tear down and build up the Body of Christ or preserve its unity while fostering division.
Pope Benedict XVI mentions that, “Francis did not initially have the intention of creating an order with the necessary canonical forms, but he wished to renew the people of God simply with the Word of God and the presence of the Lord, calling them to literal obedience to Christ and the Gospel.”
“But he understood with suffering and pain that everything must have its order, that even the law of the Church is necessary to give shape to renewal and thus he really inserted himself totally, with the heart, in the communion of the Church, with the Pope and the bishops.
“Christ never is ‘mine’ but always is ‘ours.’ ‘I’ cannot have Christ and ‘I’ cannot reconstruct against the Church, his will and his teaching – but only in communion with the Church, built on the succession of the Apostles, is obedience to the Word of God also renewed.”
Pope Benedict tells how Francis “knew always that the center of the Church is the Eucharist, where the Body and Blood of Christ are made present. In Francis, love for Christ is expressed in a special way in adoration of the Most Blessed Sacrament of the Eucharist.” Francis would often say, “I see nothing bodily of the Most High Son of God in this world except his most holy Body and Blood.”
“Through the priesthood, the Eucharist is the Church. Where priesthood, and Christ and communion of the Church go together, only there does the Word of God also dwell. Francis always showed great deference to priests, and recommended that they always be respected, even in the case when, at the personal level, they are not very worthy. He cherished, as motivation for this profound respect, the fact that they have received the gift of consecrating the Eucharist.”
Without denying, ignoring or being silent about the sins and shortcomings of the clergy, we have the ability and the duty to renew the Church by empowering priests to live up to their high calling by treating them not necessarily according to who they are but who they are called to be.
“We must show respect for the clergy, not so much for them personally if they are sinners, but by reason of their office and their administration of the most holy Body and Blood of Christ which they sacrifice upon the altar and receive and administer to others.” (St. Francis of Assisi, Letter to the Faithful, 32)
“If I saw an Angel and a priest, I would bend my knee first to the priest and then to the Angel.” (St. Francis of Assisi)
5. THE RULEThe Holy Father goes on to describe how Francis composed a Rule, and how he entrusted the government of the Order to his brothers, to dedicate his time to preaching (in particular, to the Muslims), “armed deliberately only with his faith and his personal meekness, which he carried out with great success.”
I have considered the composition of our Rule my most important contribution for the stability and longevity of MONKROCK, namely our new monastic community – Oblates of the Last Martyrdom. Thus, its development and revision has been my primary preoccupation when not busy fulfilling my other duties within and outside of the community.
The significant time and energy that the company side of things (that pays for everything) requires of me, which involves constant traveling, financial pressure and maintenance (along with my chronic illness), has been a great hardship to me (and possibly to you) as it keeps me from living up to my own goals and expectations for the community, and possibly yours, too.
Nevertheless, all such delays and disappointments serve as an ongoing reminder that the community is not mine or even ours but it is God’s creation and possession. The community may first be entrusted to me and then to all of us, but it exists not as an extension of ourselves or only for our own benefit; it exists for God and for his purposes: the renewal of Christ’s Mystical Body – the Church, and the evangelization of Christ’s kingship in the world – the culture of life, the civilization of love.
The necessity of a founder can never be overstated; nevertheless the proof of a founder’s wisdom and the evidence of God’s continued blessing upon an ecclesial movement or association is whether or not it can survive without him – and not only survive, but also stay true to the nature and purpose of its institution. It is my intention and prayer that I will establish and guide the community in such a way that it can, through its members and by God’s grace, complete it predestined purpose without my presence.
6. A LIVING ICON OF CHRIST AND SON OF MARY, MOTHER OF GODI will close by simply offering excerpts from the Holy Father’s address as-is. “It has been said that Francis represents an alter Christus, he was truly a living icon of Christ. He was even called ‘Jesus’ brother.’ Indeed, this was his ideal: to be like Jesus, to contemplate the Christ of the Gospel, to love him intensely and to imitate his virtues.”
“In 1224, in the hermitage of La Verna, Francis saw the Crucified in the form of a seraphim, and from the encounter with the crucified seraphim he received the stigmata; he thus became one with the crucified Christ: a gift, hence, which expresses his profound identification with the Lord.”
“In particular, he wished to give a fundamental value to interior and exterior poverty, teaching it also to his spiritual sons. The first Beatitude of the Sermon on the Mount – blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven (Mt. 5:3) – found a luminous fulfillment in the life and in the words of St. Francis. Francis’ death – his transitus – occurred on the evening of Oct. 3rd, 1226, at the Porziuncola. After blessing his spiritual sons, he died, lying on the naked earth.”
“Truly, dear friends, the saints are the best interpreters of the Bible; they, incarnating in their lives the Word of God, render it more than attractive, so that it really speaks to us. Francis’ witness, who loved poverty to follow Christ with dedication and total liberty, continues to be also for us an invitation to cultivate interior poverty to grow in trust of God, uniting also a sober lifestyle and detachment from material goods.”
“From the love of Christ is born love of people and also of all God’s creatures. Here is another characteristic trait of Francis’ spirituality: the sense of universal fraternity and love for Creation, which inspired his famous Canticle of Creatures. It is a very timely message. Francis reminds us that in creation is displayed the wisdom and benevolence of the Creator. In fact, nature is understood by him as a language in which God speaks with us, in which reality becomes transparent and we can speak of God and with God.”
“Dear friends, Francis was a great saint and a joyful man. His simplicity, his humility, his faith, his love of Christ, his kindness to every man and woman made him happy in every situation. In fact, between sanctity and joy there subsists a profound and indissoluble relation. A French writer said that there is only one sadness in the world: that of not being saints, that is, of not being close to God. Looking at St. Francis’ witness, we understand that this is the secret of true happiness: to become saints, close to God!”
“May the Virgin, tenderly loved by Francis, obtain this gift for us. We entrust ourselves to her with the same words of the Poverello of Assisi: ‘Holy Virgin Mary, there is no one like you born in the world among women, daughter and handmaid of the Most High King and heavenly Father, Mother of our Most Holy Lord Jesus Christ, spouse of the Holy Spirit: pray for us ... to your most holy favorite Son, Lord and Master.’”
THE BLESSING OF
“The life and teaching of Saint Francis has inspired countless people to the imitation of Christ through the embrace of inward and outward poverty. May his example teach us ever greater love for the Lord and his Church, and help us to know the immense spiritual joy born of the imitation of Christ and the pursuit of holiness.”
POPE BENEDICT XVI
In the Seraphic Father.
11 February 2013 *
First Day of Great Lent (“Pure Monday”)
Kevin Francis Bernadette Clay,
and fellow Oblate of the Last Martyrdom
T* Originally released: 1 January 2011
Mary, the Mother of God (Roman Rite, “Ordinary Form”)
Circumcision of Our Lord (Roman Rite, “Extraordinary Form”)
New Liturgical Movement
Benedict: The Lessons of St. Francis of Assisi as it Relates to Crises and Renewal within the Church
By Shawn Tribe, 28 January 2010 »
On Francis of Assisi, "The Secret of True Happiness: To Become Saints"
27 January 2010 »